A project is underway in Niger to increase cowpea production by improving farming techniques. The effort is called the Gatsby Crop-Livestock Project, named after the London-based organization that is providing funding for the effort. Among the implementers of the project is Niger's National Institute of Agronomic Research, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, or IITA, and the US Peace Corps.
Cowpea farming in Niger is being hindered by a lack of arable land, poor crop varieties and outdated farming methods. About 80 percent of Niger's people are subsistence farmers and herders who use fallow farming techniques to grow cowpea. In this system, the land remains unplanted for a period of time so nutrients needed for healthy plants can regenerate in the soil. The system does not allow for the rapid growth of crops.
Farmers also plant cowpea among crops with leaves that provide too much shade and thus impede its growth. The older cowpea varieties are also susceptible to a parasitic plant called striga, which competes with the food crop for moisture and nutrients. Dr. Hakeem Ajeigbe is the Gatsby Crop and Livestock project coordinator at IITA in Nigeria. He mentions another challenge faced by farmers, "Fertilizer is not available in the quantity required in Nigeria, Niger or anywhere in Africa. But we need fertilizer, so we are now teaching [farmers] how to use their livestock to generate manure."
But the new project by the IITA and the Ministry of Agriculture is working to turn the situation around. Dr. Hakeem says IITA scientists are introducing better yielding strains of cowpea that take 65 to 70 days to mature – nearly half the time of old varieties. They are also resistant to striga. He says farmers are taught how to enhance regular commercial fertilizers. The animals eat crop residue for 60 to 70 days and generate manure that will be used to provide nutrients to the soil. The farmer digs a hole about 10 cm from the plant and puts a small amount of manure in it. This method, called spot application, reduces the amount of chemical fertilizers needed. Dr. Hakeem says the IITA livestock project includes improved farming methods,"We have brought a new system, the strip cropping system, whereby the farmers can plant either one or two rows of cereals: four rows of cowpea. This creates a window for cowpea because with these four rows shading is minimized."
Dr. Addam Kiri Saidon is a soil scientist at an institution also involved in the effort, the National Institute of Agronomic Research of Niger (INRAN). He says Peace Corps volunteers from the United States will help train farmers in the regions of Maradi and Zinder in the new farming techniques and application of the new seed varieties. The collaboration is more on the transfer of technology working with the peace corps volunteers. They serve as a link between the project and farmers in the villages. IITA is also helping with funds, new technologies, and some aspects of research.
Niger produces nearly 700,000 tons of cowpea each year, making it the world's second largest producer, after Nigeria. It's the country's main agricultural export. It's also an indispensable part of the family diet, eaten as bean cakes and bean pudding. As West Africa's population grows, so does the demand for improved crops of the well-loved cowpea.